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Tech billionaire Ellison sees potential for agriculture on Lanai

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Dr. David Agus, left, and Larry Ellison discussed future projects related to Lanai on Saturday, especially Ellison’s vision for developing large-scale hydroponic farming and introducing community health initiatives on the island.

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A lone car on the stretch of road from the Lanai Airport.

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Dr. David Agus, left, heads a $200 million cancer center at the University of Southern California established by Larry Ellison. He also treated a nephew of Ellison and Ellison’s best friend, the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc.

Manele Bay, Lanai >> For much of the last century, Lanai was the world’s premier supplier of pineapple. Now, there’s a new plan to make the island a model that changes agriculture for the world by growing the freshest, most nutritional produce and profitably selling it for less than mass-produced imports.

Larry Ellison, the tech industry billionaire who bought 98 percent of Lanai five years ago, announced the detailed endeavor Saturday in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser interview on the island.

The ambitious plan, which involves automated, computer-­driven hydroponic cultivation inside giant greenhouses, is part of what can be viewed as Stage 2 of Ellison’s vision to make the island a sustainable community.

“We’ve looked at agriculture, and it is one of the few industries that has not been transformed by modern technology,” he said at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay.

If the $15 million high-tech greenhouse slated to be running by the middle of next year is successful, it could be reproduced far and wide with a global impact on farming and people who would be able to eat better produce that costs less.

“Lanai is step No. 1,” Ellison said. “We think we can transform agriculture.”

Ellison added that his venture, which relies on renewable energy and little transportation costs, should be profitable in its first year.

The crops grown initially at what will be known as Lanai Farms are expected to include tomatoes, leafy greens, cucumbers and herbs but could expand in a future phase with more vegetables and possibly fruits, according to Kurt Matsumoto, chief operating officer of Pulama Lanai, the Ellison company managing Lanai operations.

Ellison said scientists and computers will measure and maximize nutrition, and that resulting crops should cost “a fraction” of what Hawaii consumers pay for what’s on store shelves today.

“If you have the highest quality and the best nutrition, you have to be willing to pay less,” he said with a smile. “It’s economic and health benefits all rolled into one. The highest-quality food at the lowest prices.”

Other parts of Ellison’s Lanai 2.0 plan include a $75 million transformation of the Lodge at Koele in Lanai City into a resort where people go to improve themselves with meditation, yoga, serene image immersion and luxurious spa treatments, among other things.

About 80 local residents, mainly from Lanai, got a preview of the agricultural venture and some health initiatives also being deployed on the island by Ellison during a community presentation Saturday by a renowned cancer specialist and Ellison friend, Dr. David Agus, in Lanai’s restored historic movie theater.

Agus talked about the farm plan as well as community health initiatives that include one of two recently installed medical computer kiosks that link a patient visually with a doctor who can look at them — through the screen as well as with a stethoscope, otoscope (for the ears) and other special equipment connected to the machine — and give advice for less than the cost of a normal doctor’s visit.

Agus heads a $200 million cancer center at the University of Southern California established by Ellison. He also treated a nephew of Ellison and Ellison’s best friend, the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc.

He talked Saturday about ways to avoid disease — walking, baby aspirin, three regular meals a day — and shared stories of battling cancer.

“It’s not sustainable how we’re all living,” Agus told the audience. “What we need to do is change the model. We really are farming the world to death if you think about it. Whether it be about water consumption or with the chemicals we’re using, we’re growing food so it’s calories per acre — not figuring out what they do to human nutrition, but just how much can we grow, not how good it is for us.”

Agus said a team Ellison has assembled wants to make the Lanai produce enterprise a microcosm that shows the world such changes are possible.

“There’s a long-term commitment,” he said of the health initiative involving agriculture and the Koele resort. “The beauty of dealing with Mr. Ellison is that his commitments aren’t short-term, they’re long-term. Larry Ellison never loses, and particularly because he thinks long-term.”

Eunice Turqueza Derenne, a Lanai resident who a year ago moved back to the island on which she grew up in the 1950s, said the plan is refreshing.

“I’m excited,” she said. “This can be a role model for the state.”

Ellison’s partners in the venture are a retired Oregon State horticulture professor born on Lanai, Les Fuchigami; health tech firm Sensei, led by Daniel Gruneberg; and Israel-based hydroponic system producer Growponics.

The envisioned greenhouses — 10 of them each measuring 20,000 square feet — have been designed to produce 1.7 million pounds of produce annually, or more than enough to supply Lanai residents and visitors.

Ellison said the farm, which would grow vegetables in water infused with nutrients under controlled climate conditions, will use one-tenth the water needed for the same crops grown in soil. That’s particularly important for Lanai because fresh groundwater is so limited.

Previously, Ellison envisioned producing fresh water on Lanai through desalination. But that effort ran into a permitting difficulty and was dropped. Ellison said that was a blessing because it led to a new approach for agriculture. “I think we’re being a little bit more clever,” he said.

Ellison’s team also has applied for a $10 million National Institutes of Health grant to research the nutrition and water conservation work using University of Hawaii professors, who would work in a research facility connected to the greenhouse operation.

At Koele, Ellison plans to add 10 spa treatment hale with individual therapy pools next to a reconfigured lake and new hotel pool behind the 102-room lodge, which has been closed since January 2015.

About half the lodge rooms will get additions of private gardens featuring individual hot-water soaking tubs. A yoga pavilion, movement studio, fitness building, dining pavilion and renovated lobby are also part of the renovation plan.

Another piece of the Koele project, which is expected to start in December and finish a year later, is converting 100 acres that used to be nine holes of Koele’s resort golf course into a garden with monumental statues created by artists in residence. The other part of the golf course area will feature zip lines, a ropes course and trails.

Ellison, 72, who founded software firm Oracle Corp. and is now chairman and chief technology officer after stepping down as CEO three years ago, said Lanai is a special place that he has visited about 20 times since he bought the island from David Murdock of Castle & Cooke for a reported $300 million in 2012.

With an estimated net worth of about $61 billion as calculated by Forbes, Ellison is the world’s seventh-richest person. He said he isn’t sure if he will ever retire from Oracle, though Lanai has a strong draw.

“I consider moving to Lanai every time I come here,” he said. “It’s a spectacular place.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the University of Southern California as the University of California.
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